TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's export slump eased in April, adding to growing evidence that the recession is loosening its grip on the world's second-biggest economy.
Exports in April fell 39.1 percent from a year earlier, less than the 45.6 percent decline posted in March, the Ministry of Finance said Wednesday. The export drop moderated across all major regions and sectors.
The result led to an unexpected trade surplus of 68.95 billion yen ($725.8 million) -- Japan's third straight month in the black. Starting late last year, Japan posted several trade deficits -- where imports exceed exports -- and economists had been predicting another deficit in April.
"Today's release supports our view that exports are past the worst," said Chiwoong Lee, an economist at Goldman Sachs in Tokyo.
A rebound in overseas shipments is critical to reviving Japan as well as the rest of Asia. The country, which had relied heavily on foreign sales of its cars and gadgets to drive growth, is in its steepest recession since World War II amid an unprecedented collapse in global demand.
Japan's economy shrank at a record 15.2 percent annual pace in the first quarter. Last year, it posted its first annual trade deficit in 28 years.
But officials and economists are increasingly hopeful that the economy will grow again in the April-June period as the government's stimulus steps take root and companies begin boosting production.
Industrial production turned positive in March after tumbling sharply for several months, and a recent Cabinet Office survey showed business confidence is climbing.
Last week, Japan's central bank upgraded its economic assessment, taking a cautiously upbeat stance that recession may be slowing. It said the economy was still deteriorating, but exports and production are beginning to level out. Previous assessments said the economy had been deteriorating significantly.
Japan's exports to the U.S. fell 46.3 percent in April from a year earlier and those to China were down 25.8 percent. Shipments to the rest of Asia and Europe also posted less severe declines.
The slower retreat extended across product categories, including motor vehicles, electronics and machinery.
Domestic demand for foreign products stayed lackluster, with imports retreating 35.8 percent.
Lee of Goldman Sachs said export declines will likely level out in the months ahead, though he does not expect a full recovery anytime soon.
"We anticipated growing disparities between export industries driven by government fiscal policies globally," he said in a note to clients. "As an illustration, uncertainty for transport equipment contrasts with a positive short-term outlook for capital goods such as ordinary machinery" due to Chinese infrastructure investment.
The government will release more key data Friday -- April industrial production, unemployment and household spending -- that should further clarify Japan's economic health.